A powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City on Tuesday, collapsing buildings and sending thousands fleeing into streets exactly 32 years on the anniversary of the 1985 massive earthquake. (Prensa Internacional/Zuma Press/TNS)

At least 79 killed as powerful 7.1 earthquake strikes central Mexico

MEXICO CITY — A powerful 7.1 earthquake shook central Mexico on Tuesday, killing dozens of people, knocking down buildings and power lines and sending thousands fleeing into the streets screaming.

Authorities said at least 79 died, with 54 in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Four people died in Mexico City and 8 in the surrounding state of Mexico. Thirteen died in Puebla, but authorities warned the death toll would likely rise.

The temblor caused buildings to sway violently in Mexico City, including in the historic districts of El Centro and Roma, collapsing some of them and causing huge cracks to appear on the facades of others.

Panic spread through the city’s central core, where dozens of buildings collapsed. Rescue vehicles screamed toward damaged buildings, and neighbors took on heroic roles as rescuers.

On Amsterdam Street, a normally tranquil road that rings a major park in the upscale neighborhood of Condesa, a large apartment building crumbled into a pile of concrete and dust.

Hundreds of residents helped a team of soldiers, police officers and firemen search the rubble for survivors. Many of the men were shirtless in the late summer heat, and everyone was covered with dust.

Some rescuers commandeered shopping carts from a nearby supermarket and formed a human chain to haul away rubble. Several times, a warning went up about a possible aftershock or gas leak, sending hordes of panicked people running.

But there were few places that would be safe. Amsterdam, like many streets in Condesa, is narrow and lined with trees and power lines, all of which could turn deadly in an aftershock.

The neighborhood was filled with thousands of dazed and dusty survivors too afraid to return to their homes. They stood around with dogs and suitcases, holding their heads, checking social media feeds on their phones. Many ducked into their homes to bring food and water for rescuers.

In Roma, buildings swayed violently, sending rubble tumbling onto cars below. A video recorded from a skyscraper showed giant plumes of dust rising in the air.

Police cordoned off entire blocks because of the fears that gas leaks could cause explosions. Flights into Mexico City were temporarily rerouted to other cities, but the airport reopened after checks were completed.

Eight died in the State of Mexico, which surrounds the capital, authorities said. They included a quarry worker who was crushed when the quake unleashed a rockslide and another person who was hit by a falling lamppost, according to The Associated Press.

The governor of Morelos, Graco Ramirez, posted a preliminary casualty count from his state on his twitter account. He said the 54 deaths occurred in 11 cities, including Cuernavaca, Tetecala and Jojutla — which reported the highest toll, 12.

The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the preliminary magnitude of the earthquake at 7.1. The epicenter was about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla.

It struck on the anniversary of a 1985 temblor that killed thousands of people and devastated large parts of Mexico City — a tragedy President Enrique Pena Nieto had commemorated earlier in the day.

Mexico City is prone to major damage in earthquakes because it sits on an old lake bed that amplifies the shaking.

Susan Hough, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist, said Tuesday’s quake was likely related to one that struck off the coast of Mexico’s Oaxaca state on Sept. 7, which the government calculated as a magnitude 8.2 and the USGS as an 8.1.

“An 8.1 is big enough that having an aftershock this big and this distant — it isn’t too surprising,” Hough said. “It’s unusual, but it fits in with the picture that we’ve grown to understand.”